The article in this month's Harper's that I mentioned yesterday, questioning the need for widespread Algebra II instruction in high schools, was really interesting. Nicholson Baker, the author, argues that there is no need to feed every student -- or even every college-bound student -- through the sausage grinder of higher mathematics. Doing so, he says, simply breeds resentment, boredom, frustration and anger in students with no head for math.
Baker recommends that we instead "create a new, one-year teaser course for ninth graders, which would briefly cover a few techniques of algebraic manipulation, some mind-stretching geometric proofs, some nifty things about parabolas and conic sections, and even perhaps a soft-core hint of the infinitesimal, change-explaining powers of calculus. Throw in some scatter plots and data analysis, a touch of mathematical logic, and several representative topics in math history and math appreciation." Mention some historic figureheads of the math world and how they discovered the topic.
"Make it a required course. Six weeks of factoring and solving simple equations is enough to give any student a rough idea of what the algebraic ars magna is really like, and whether he or she has any head for it," he writes. Let the students who don't simply move on to other subjects.
Higher math, Baker argues, really is not one of the core elements of education that students need to survive. He likens it instead to smelting, farming, knitting or highway design -- areas of specialized study for those who are truly interested. Modern algebra requirements are a remnant of the red-baiting era in the 1950s when the United States feared that Russia was outpacing its students in math and science. At the beginning of that decade, Baker writes, only a quarter of American high school students took algebra, and yet mathematics as a field was prospering -- because those who studied it really loved it.
The article quotes a mathematician who once wrote, "Mathematics is so useful that there could be no civilization without it, and it is so beautiful that some theorems and their proofs -- those which cause us to gasp, or to laugh out loud with delight -- should be hanging in museums." But even this guy agrees that teaching Algebra II to all high-schoolers is a bad idea. "Forcing people to take mathematics is just terrible," he said.
I cannot tell you how much I loved this article. As a student who struggled with math, who shed tears over it, who participated in screaming fights with my math-teacher parents because I just couldn't see what was so obvious to them, I think he is right on the money. Quotes like the one above, about the beauty of math, literally make my skin crawl. They give me the same feeling that I get when I hear the whistles and cheers of an NFL football game -- a visceral revulsion rooted in, I suspect, my frustration that I just don't get why people like this stuff. I can guarantee you that I have never gasped or laughed with delight at a theorem or proof.
A basic one-year introduction to mathematical mysteries would have suited me just fine -- sort of like the one-year course I got in chemistry. I don't use much chemistry in my daily life but it pays to understand what an electron is, or how atoms torn apart or smashed together might produce powerful reactions or new elements. You know what I mean? All most of us need are the generalities.
And speaking of magazines, Dave pointed out that Olga is featured in a corner of the cover of this week's New Yorker (left)!
(Top photo: A couple in Hyde Park, where I went walking with Olga yesterday.)